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Misrepresentation of history

The negative portrayal of Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat

Misrepresentation of history

The Bollywood flick, Padmaavat, has irked many, particularly those having even a nodding acquaintance with the history of the subcontinent. A friend jestingly remarked that Padmaavat has attracted as many critics as cinema goers. The fact remains that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s endeavour is a brazen and bizarre way of fictionalising history that serves only some vested interests.

Alauddin Khilji, a medieval king, obviously a historical character, was negatively portrayed vis a vis the fictional character of Rani Padmaavati who epitomised ‘goodness’ in the film. Such juxtaposition, of goodness of a fictional figure who happened to be Hindu against the diabolically evil characterised in a historical personality who was a Muslim, has stirred up controversy in India as well as in Pakistan. Ironically, the fictional character holds precedence over the historical figure in a fight between good and evil.

The way Malik Kafur is depicted is lamentable in the extreme. His is the grossest misrepresentation of all characters in the film. In history books, Kafur comes across as an economic genius of medieval times whose policies had far-reaching impact.

Thus, it was at best an effort to plead de-historicising of the past. Historians are readily picking holes in the story-line of the film which they claim is riddled with factual flaws. Obviously, making of such a film is a big source of embarrassment for historians in India who have tried to build a narrative of composite India since the days of Jawahar Lal Nehru and on compelling grounds. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has gone on to promote a narrative which is likely to crystalise communal fissures in a society, already reeling under the mounting pressure of communal animosity.

Of course Alauddin Khilji was ruthless and cunning like Machiavelli’s Prince but not a maniac as portrayed in Padmaavat. Nor was he was religiously disposed, advancing the cause of Muslims or Islam. Showing his army saying namaz in congregation in the film seemed absolutely far-fetched and incongruent with historical facts. Then, the composition of the Khilji army could not be religiously homogeneous in a manner it is represented in the film. The construction of the binary opposite on communal lines has a clear resonance with Hindutva ideology and contravenes, in absolute sense, the plurality of socio-cultural ethos which has so far been projected by Indian historians.

Historians of medieval India will agree with the assertion that Alauddin Khilji was one of four ablest rulers that medieval India had seen, Shamasuddin Iltutmish, Ghiyas ud Din Balban, Jalal ud Din Akbar being the other three. Containment of Mongol menace from the North West, establishing peace and order in Northern India, subjecting the army under the central command for the first time in India and introduction of an economic system by streamlining the revenue accruing from agriculture were the salient planks of Alauddin’s administrative system. All these reforms from their conception to execution must have kept him so pre-occupied, leaving no time to camp outside Mewar with his army just in pursuit of love for Rani Padmaavati.

The pragmatic ruler as Alaudin is known to historians, such an undertaking appears to be nothing but a mere figment of imagination. Showing him as an avaricious clown, completely devoid of any sophistication, reflecting in the way he ate, drank and carried himself amounts to inverting the characterisation of Alauddin provided and substantiated by established historians of Allahabad and Aligarh.

The way Malik Kafur is depicted is lamentable in the extreme. His is the grossest misrepresentation of all characters in the film. In history books, Kafur comes across as an economic genius of medieval times whose policies had far-reaching impact. Subsequent economic planners had to take his planning into consideration while devising their policy. But, in the movie, the character of Kafur was trivialised into a debauch and treacherous eunuch personifying Lucifer, who was complicit in crime with Alauddin.

I am really interested in reading a detailed take on the movie Padmaavat by historians of the caliber of Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and Harbans Mukhia. Their analytical feedback may have a containing effect on the damage that the film is doing to the general perception of history.

In a disclaimer before the start of the movie, it is claimed the production team does mean to hurt the feelings of any religious community. What it means is that the viewers should treat the film as an entertainment venture which is fictional in essence. But the point is that the fictionalised content is set in a historical context. Thus by putting up that disclaimer, the audience is alerted to the display of travesty done to historical characters.

But the noteworthy point is the narrative which has been conjured up throughout the film and the impact it is likely to have on popular perception about the Muslim rule in India. I wonder if a communally charged social formation like India can afford a film with such fissiparous content being screened in its cinemas.

Unless there is another film that provides a counter-narrative which is the need of the hour, the role of Muslims in Indian history would be that of a stock of people who were alien, uncouth, anti-Hindu and generally brutal. In the past, Pakistani movies like Gharnata, Taj Mahal, Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali were made which did not go unnoticed. One may assert that this trend ought to be revived as movies are the most potent and effective source not only of creation but peddling of the historical narrative. One must bear in mind that a particular way of narrating historical events casts profound influence on perceptions formed in the present. 

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

13 comments

  • The points Tahir Rahman makes about Bhansali’s film has, in a way, already been made by many reviewers, e.g., Rachel Saltz in
    the New York Times or Namrata Joshi in The Hindu. Saltz calls the film ‘cartoonish and dispiriting’, while Joshi dubs it as an ‘interminable expanse of unadulterated dullness.’ Tahir, who always writes with great elegance and clarity, focusses on some inexcusable historical misrepresentations in the film. He carries the authority of a mature historian with him and, therefore, his expose’ cannot be dismissed as prejudiced. I am sure many Indian historians, including the ones Tahir Rahman has mentioned,
    will lay bare in greater detail the several distortions of history showcased in the film.

  • Even if one goes by Alaudin khilji depiction in Syam Benegal ‘s BHARAT EK KHOJ based on Javahar lal Nehru Discovery of India , he was no different. Allaudin being a good administrator or great warrior is irrelirrelevant as far Padmini story is concerned

    • But Padmani. Did. Not. Exist… She. is. Entirely. Fictional!

  • well written article … actually this thing clearly depicts the ISLAMOPHOBIA in Indian culture. I have noticed that in every bollywood movie villain is always a Muslim wearing shalwar kameez and named as Ibrahim bhai, Qasim bhai etc … Muslims in India have to take action on this … otherwise BANYA Hindus will keep on with this conspiracy.

  • This man allauddin killed his own uncle and blinded his own two sons. He killed wives and children of his armymen who rebelled against him which was the first time where family was given punishment for the wrongdoing of accused. He cut the heads of children and garlended them on their mother’s neck. He imposed jaziya on the majority community, destroyed innumerable no. of hindu temples, burned the biggest library in the world in nalanda and killed all the monks over there who were no threat to him and were not a center of wealth. His killing of innocent hindus is well recorded by amir khusro and other historians of the time. I think more than the table manners shown in the movie his actions were far more brutal and barbaric and the movie does not even capture 5 percent of that. I hope the writer will genuienly reflect upon the muslim history of india and stop defending somebody just because he was a muslim and it is duty of every muslim to defend everything muslim anywhere in the world

  • Jamil Soomro, New York City

    It is amazing to see that Indian Film Industry in 2018 is making a historical Film.
    Probably because they have run out of the romantic stories.Historical stories only
    look nice on T.V.The last historical Film that created a sensation was long time ago
    Dilip Kumar starrer Mughal-E-Azam. Now the Indian Film Industry has gone to the
    Medical Department for their stories such as Toilet Story and Padman?

  • Gaurav:

    Sultans or Mughals were a mixed lot and anyone painting all of them with
    the white or the black brush will be distorting history. Akabar and Dara
    were differently made than Aurangzeb.

    While assessing a film, one has to judge it as art and as history. Bhansali
    is known for middle-brow films. The film has not earned many laurels, as my
    quotes from NYT and The Hindu show. As for history, it is the Hindus alone
    who have protested against the film.

  • Dr Tahir Kamran, thanks for resonating the voice of majority. The film is clearly aimed to appease the uprising far right.

  • in NYC: Thank you for writing this Prof Tahir Kamran & setting the recoed straight. That India under Modi’s reign/rule is in the grip of Islamophobia is alarmingly clear. Except for Gaurav, all the other thoughtful commentators Sarvan Minhas, Jamil Soomroo, Manzar Saeed, SHM, Horselord, and PnPuri have all said the truth as it is. Prof Tahir Kamran is an outstandingly truthful historian who harbors no prejudices whatsoever. The Rajput rulers not only kept their women in purdah, forced young women into their harems, and then if the abducting ruler diesd, all the women in his harem were fored to be burned alive. its only when all the Rajput rulers willlingly become British vassals, did the horrific murderous widow burning Rajput “tradition” stop. During the early forties when the ruler of Jodhpur attempted to force his widowed daughter in law into the funeral pyre the British Resident had to restrain the ruler from proceeding, by threatening him with prosecution and execution.

    • To P. Harimohan

      There are innumerable records of ladies committing mass suicide in jauhar which first time appeared at the time of invasion by alexander and reappeared constantly under muslim rule of india. I challenge all of you to give me one example of recorded indian history from alexander to Mahmud Gori where women committed Jauhar. By the way guys relax, it is just a movie and not a documentary and the director is restricted by story and 3 hours time where he could not possibly explore all aspects of Allauddin khilji. The word “muslim” and “islam” do not appear a single time in the entire movie. If Allauddin was a muslim then it is natural for Bhansli to show his attire and other things as muslim, why feel apologetic about it. I wonder when these muslim rulers never ever felt themselves as indians and always appointed most of their higher officials from persia,turkey, afghanistan and middle east then why some indians are hell bent upon declaring them more indian than indian.

  • If you go by Islamic historians of the time, these rulers and ulemas looked down upon converted indian muslims and Ziauddin Barani, the 14th century political thinker of the Delhi Sultanate recommended that the “sons of Mohamed” (i.e. Ashrafs) be given a higher social status than the low-born (i.e. Ajlaf). His most significant contribution in the fatwa was his analysis of the castes with respect to Islam. His assertion was that castes would be mandated through state laws or “Zawabi” and would carry precedence over Sharia law whenever they were in conflict. The reason why Muslims are backward and fanatic is because they are never apologetic about the barbarian and uncivilised conduct of their past “Heores” whereas from Gandhi to every right thinking hindu criticise inhuman caste system and provided “reservation” in govt jobs and educational institutes to undo the past injustice. I hope a day will come when these fake liberals will feel sorry and apologise for the destruction of….

  • pristine civilsation of this holy land. By comparing social evils like sati and others which existed in every society like
    burning of witches in europe that outnumbered all the sati victims of india with invasion and murder of innocent civilians by these foreigners is akin to trivialising the whole subject. I hope that instead of spreading these false narrative of noble muslim rulers by quoting some misdeeds of native rulers is not going to work anymore and more than hindus, it is upon muslims to honestly rethink about their past so that they can live peacefully in modern world rather than keep thinking of great islamic empire and rebirth of “Khalifa”. I am from Rajasthan and until 25 years ago 80 percent ritual/tradition/culture of muslims were similar to hindus but now every muslim seem to have adopted dress/language/culture of Arabs. So now if you want to look different and superior from others, then why complain if somebody also treats you and your history differently.

  • Bhansali has clearly stated that Padmavat is not based on history, but on a poem. Unfortunately jaahil Indians take it as the gospel, which suits fascist regime of Modi. Khilji had numerous wives and concubines. Why would he risk his time and resources on a kaali kalauti Indian?

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